Kentucky balancing experience, freshman talent in pursuit of a title
A few years ago at the Peach Jam tournament, I sat with a wise, respected longtime college basketball assistant who decried the chase for nothing but one-and-done talent. A team can't win a national title without several Good Program Guys, the assistant said. Then he explained the definition of a Good Program Guy.
A GPG doesn't specialize in waving a towel on the bench for four years. He's an experienced contributor who may not have reached superstardom but whose ability earns him the respect of his younger, talented teammates. Even when the young studs won't listen to the coach, they'll listen to the GPG. That's what makes them important.
The assistant was correct. You can't win the national title without the GPG. Last year, Connecticut guard Kemba Walker was the GPG who developed into perhaps the best player in the country. In 2009, Duke center Brian Zoubek was the GPG who turned out to be the missing piece in the Blue Devils' lineup. In 2008, Kansas guard Mario Chalmers was the GPG who sank the bucket that sent the national title game to overtime.
The coach on the other bench that night was John Calipari. At Memphis and now at Kentucky, Calipari has specialized in recruiting potential one-and-done players. He can't win the national title, his critics say (among other things), because his emphasis on fantastic freshmen limits his opportunities to develop the GPGs that can lead his team to a national title. That's simply incorrect.
In fact, Calipari may have hit on the ideal formula for recruiting top-flight talent and supplementing that talent with GPGs. If he stays at Kentucky long enough, that approach is going to win the Wildcats a national title. Of course, long enough may be a relative term. Kentucky has the talent to win the title this year, but do the Wildcats have the GPGs?
They might. Unlike last year, when five players (freshmen John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton and junior Patrick Patterson) declared early for the draft and left Kentucky with a virtually new lineup, the Wildcats lost only guards Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins to early entry. (They also lost GPG center Josh Harrellson, a holdover from the Billy Gillispie era, who was -- gasp -- a senior.) Maybe the impending NBA lockout encouraged forward Terrence Jones and guard Doron Lamb to stay another year, but the fact is they stayed. And Calipari is smart enough to work the numbers. There will only be 30 first-round draft picks every year, and Kentucky is only allowed to play with one basketball. The odds are against a mass exodus on the order of the Wall class. That means some supremely talented players will stick around for a year or two and become GPGs. Combine GPGs with elite talents such as freshmen Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis, and you will win a national title eventually.
At the moment, the two players most likely to earn GPG status on this year's team are Lamb and senior guard Darius Miller. Because Calipari has said he would be nuts not to start freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- he of the 6-foot-7 frame, 7-2 wingspan and embarrassment of riches skill set -- either Lamb or Miller must come off the bench. "Any NBA team that's come in, and just about everyone has, says the same thing: 'You have six starters. One of them has to come off the bench.' Whether it's going to be Darius or Doron, I don't know right now," Calipari said. "It was either going to be Michael, Darius or Doron. After [the preseason], you understand it's not going to be Michael. He's going to be starting."
That leaves Lamb (12.3 points, 28.4 minutes in 2010-11) and Miller (10.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 31 minutes a game) to take one for the team and compete for the fifth starting spot. "It's good," Calipari said after the Morehouse win. "You have two other guys that have to fight. The thing that will take their games to another level, Darius and Doron, is that competitive spirit. That battle for a spot I think takes them to another level. And it really doesn't matter who's in the end. One of them was the MVP of the SEC tournament and the other was the best player for us in the Final Four."
This type of thing can divide a locker room, but here's betting it doesn't. One underreported fact about Calipari's one-and-done players is that even after they declared for the draft, they kept going to class so Kentucky wouldn't take a hit in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rates measurement and lose scholarships the way Connecticut did. Wall, Knight and company didn't have to finish their spring semesters, but they did it anyway. "It's their turn to look out for the program," Calipari explained during an interview in May.
Asked why he trusts those players to do their schoolwork while they have NBA Draft concerns on their minds, Calipari said he receives no guarantee. It's up to him to choose wisely. So far, he has. "If I look at a kid, and I'm thinking, is this guy going to stay a year or two, my second question is if he's a program builder or a program taker?" Calipari said. "If he's a taker, I walk."
So if Lamb was a giver when he was recruited, it's doubtful that would change even if he winds up becoming the sixth man as a sophomore. Miller, meanwhile, has been a GPG already, starting in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and deferring when necessary to the one-and-done talent surrounding him. Judging by what Miller said last month, the Wildcats may have enough in the GPG department -- we already knew they had enough in the talent department -- to win the program's first national title since 1998.
"There are going to be a lot of sacrifices made," Miller said at Kentucky's media day. "One big aspect is that we have to be a team and be on the same page. We have to be like a family. If people are on different pages, then it's not going to work."